As things stand Chelsea hold the record for the worst title defence since the Premier League began in 1992. Leicester City, who look certain to spare Chelsea’s blushes, require 24 points from 11 remaining games to avoid the unwanted record. It’s worth pointing out the similarities between both clubs and how winning the title ultimately killed their momentum and led to a poor title defence. Neither the Chelsea 2014/15 or Leicester 2015/16 champions were truly great teams compared to previous winners, both merely won because there were no better teams contending. Even if they don’t manage to retain the title, great teams tend to stick around and compete. Perhaps Chelsea and Leicester took their foot off the pedal while basking in the glory of the season past, maybe they developed an ego that affected their work rate, but one mitigating factor that both clubs managed to neglect was strengthening their squad. The Premier League has an ever-evolving environment that punishes those who stand still. Formations, styles and tactics all have a limited shelf life before they are outdone by the latest and greatest.
The famous survival of the fittest mantra goes “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change” Jose Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri struggled to adapt to the extent required to mount a formidable title defence, however one could argue that both managers were unlucky to be relieved of their duties prematurely considering they both achieved legendary status at their respective clubs.
One man who is currently reaping the rewards of a perfectly adapted strategy is Antonio Conte. Six games in to the season, Chelsea were getting battered 3-0 at half time by Arsenal, they were on the back of a draw with Swansea and a defeat against Liverpool. Struggling to keep up with Arsenal’s swift attacking performance, Conte subbed Cesc Fabregas for new signing Marcos Alonso and implemented a 3-4-3 formation with the two outside midfielders acting as attacking wing backs. Chelsea held Arsenal for the rest of the game and have been using the system ever since, winning 18 of the last 21 games.
With 11 games remaining, it already looks certain Chelsea will emerge as 2017 Premier League champions, their remaining fixtures are not overly difficult with next Monday’s FA Cup quarter final against Manchester United being the main distraction. It’s not only Conte’s ability to adapt that has helped Chelsea thrive, he also prepared well by making key signings last Summer in David Luiz, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante.
Kante, Leicester City’s unsung hero last year has been drawing the plaudits since his £30 Million move. Eden Hazard recently told Chelsea TV “It feels like playing alongside the Kante twins” such is the French man’s presence. However, it’s left-wing back Marcos Alonso who looks like Chelsea’s unsung hero this season, the ex-Bolton and Fiorentina player has worked tirelessly under Conte’s 3-4-3 system. The sheer amount of ground Alonso manages to cover resembles that of Kante, watching his consistent powerful attacking runs from deep and determination to then transition back in to defence is a superb showcase of his athleticism.
Despite building a substantial lead Conte is still striving for perfection, speaking to Sky Sports after Chelsea’s 2-1 victory against local rivals West Ham last Monday night “it’s a pity for the goal we conceded at the end, we must improve in this situation”. This is a perfect example of the Italians admirable ruthlessness considering Chelsea have kept the highest number of clean sheets (13) in the Premier League this season.
Above all else, Conte has managed to get his players playing for him, let’s not forget some of the same key players for Chelsea this year did not perform last season under Mourinho. Was this a case of overwhelming player power? Blaming poor performances on management and then reassuming responsibility under a new manager? Can the same be said for Leicester this season? Even if this is a factor, there is no doubt that Conte has put his stamp on this Chelsea side and successfully re-established their elite status amongst the Premier League’s best.
Chelsea’s players by appearances this season so far:
By Ciarán Cunningham, 16:49 8th March 2017